I had been contemplating titling this blog entry with something more noble, more austere. Something like The Wall. It reflects more of the tenor of the entry, but the title, despite it's provocative nature, is, quite literally, the subject of this monologue.
I was introduced to "The Wall", by my tennis buddy, Adam. The Wall is actually four walls, that reside at Cabin John, near a baseball field, adjacent to a sand filled volleyball field.
This Wall isn't meant for tennis. It's meant for the venerable sport of handball, which is seldom seen. The Wall towers nearly 20 feet high, much higher than typical walls which are, unwisely, only as tall as the fence that surrounds a court, and as many a tennis player will tell you, not quite tall enough to prevent the scurrying of an embarassed player out into grass or woods or worse to fetch a golden orb and bring it back from the elements.
So few people play handball that the Wall is free, most days, for tennis players to hone their strokes.
I'm new to the Wall. As common as tennis courts are, decent tennis walls are rare. And, as much as the Wall is meant to teach you how to hit a ball, it is not a real tennis partner.
Indeed, when you first meet the Wall, it's hard to control the ball. Balls hit against the wall come back quicker. It's not obvious why this is, so I'll explain.
Normally, when you hit the ball, it must make it from you to across the net. That distance is then doubled while on your opponent's side of the net. The ball must cross the net and reach the opponent, and then the opponent must hit the ball and the ball makes a return path back to the net. Finally, it crosses the net and bounces and you get a chance to hit it.
When you hit against the Wall, that doesn't happen. The ball doesn't really cross the net. It impacts the Wall. All the time spent in the territory of your opponent, that round trip time, is gone. The Wall reflects the ball back and you must react to it sooner.
And because the Wall is passive, not active. It doesn't impart spin, it doesn't hit a weak shot, and it likely moves the ball higher or lower than you expect.
It takes a while before you learn how to hit a ball against the Wall so that you don't hit too high, nor too low. Very often, beginners to the Wall, as some kind of rite of passage, must learn how to avoid sending the ball too high.
Furthermore, balls must generally be hit "down the line", which is basically in front of you, so that the Wall doesn't apply a bit of physics and take the angle of incidence and flip it as the angle of reflection, thus causing you to scamper across to fetch the ball again.
While this strategy works well in racquetball where you get the benefit of side walls to bounce off, in tennis, it means running.
The Wall encourages a bit of complacency. Many who seek the wisdom of hitting against the Wall believe the objective is to "Hit The Ball As Many Times As Possible". It is a game, after all, and the game is to hit over and over and over again. But because the Wall has peculiar behavior, the time that it robs you from hitting the ball most glaringly, the goal of hitting against the Wall often forces most players, unwittingly, to ease up on how they hit.
I've seen many a player that look quite good hitting against the Wall. The technique appears solid. They can get the ball back quite a few times in a row. But once they go to the court, their strokes are weak. They lack purpose. They may have steadiness, but they often lack the control to maneuver the ball to difficult positions on the court. The Wall encourages mostly straight ahead hitting. The variety and purpose of shot isn't something you can easily practice.
If you want power, you must resign yourself to the fact that you must hit the ball quite low and that no, you aren't going to hit ten shots in a row. Power, how hard you hit the ball, is an important component of tennis, and the Wall lulls you into treating it as a secondary consideration.
Once you get past the fact that the Wall isn't a truthful partner, then you begin to find some truth.
Tennis is typically played with two people, sometimes more. Even if your partner agrees to practice, there's always some burden. Is the partner good enough to hit a few shots in a row? Do they really want to practice with you? What if you want to hit 10, 20, 30 shots in a row to hone some shot down? And what if you actually have to talk?
No, the Wall, is a predictable opponent. Not as varied as a typical person, but predictable. You can hit against the wall 10, 20, 30 times, and it doesn't complain. And you have time to think.
Sport, most will say, is not about thinking. Or more properly, it is about transcending thinking. Just as drivers who worry about their arms being in 9 o'clock and 3 o'clock and who sit rather rigid and who worry about cars in their blind spots, and look a bit too uncomfortable their first few times behind the wheel, tennis players seeking to improve, to change the way the want to hit, must take time to think.
Once they consciously think of what the body should do, they strike the ball once, then again, then again. The mind understands the body needs time and repetition and waits for the body to "learn". The repetition builds a memory and the goal is for the recent memory to take over the older memory, to replace a worse stroke with a better one.
This retraining is not particular to tennis. Tiger Woods retuned his swing not once but twice in his career. He would spend upwards of a year training his body to swing a certain way, and only through hours of repetitions and thousands of balls struck would the motion chisel its way into his body so that the body would do its master's bidding.
I've gone in cool spring days, and in hot balmy summer days, and seen the changing of the colors of the trees nearby, whose golden leaves listter the court, and brought out the racquet, and bounced a few balls, and hit them against the wall, and again, and again, hoping to find a kind of truth, a kind of purity of swing and motion.
The Wall is a kind of monastery to which I head to, a place of quiet introspection. Monks seek time to themselves, to search for something, they often know not what. They hope to find wisdom and insight in solitude. They are left to their own thoughts, and hope to draw inspiration. Silence and time and a singular objective can create the kind of mix that allows for that.
Perhaps the goal of the perfect tennis shot, as mundane and comical as it sounds, is not that far removed from what monks seek. Perhaps the monks discover as I have discovered that there is no One True Swing, but that each of us forms our own truth, the truth that gives us comfort and satisfaction, and that it isn't really the attainment of Truth that we seek, but the journey towards truth that is ultimately what it's all about.
This journey is far from perfect. We may never obtain the Truth we seek, but we see ourselves getting closer. It is the distance reduced, the effort put forth, that while not entirely pleasurable, gives depth to our cause, our mission. Humans seem to crave a clear goal whose path to fulfillment is not so clear nor easy.
It is when we walk a difficult path, but know that each step is getting us closer, that ultimately makes us keep going. The destination may be a kind of folly, but the journey is what it is ultimately about.
And so the Wall, immovable, implacable serves a quite testament to that journey. And many more balls will be struck upon it. And through this repetition, this penance, one hopes to gain a little enlightenment.
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